Food29th April 2014

Interview with Masterchef Winner Shelina Permalloo

With a Mauritian heritage Shelina tells us about her culinary favourites

by Sarah Lawrence

Master Chef is a popular programme for those who enjoy experimenting in the kitchen and for those that just love food. I fall into the latter category, but I do enjoy watching 'amateur' chefs produce some sumptuous food. Since claiming first place in the coveted cuisine challenge Masterchef in 2012, Shelina Permalloo has curated a platform for Mauritian food within the UK. We caught up with the refreshingly down-to-earth chef to take note of how she incorporates the distinctive island flavours within her dishes.

“My Mauritian heritage is definitely a culinary influence,” Shelina assures us. “Both my parents are from the island of Mauritius and they came over here in the ‘70s. I’d say that my mother’s influence from cooking for us as kids is the basis of my food style and inspiration.”

Drawn in by her heritage food heaven, it is no surprise that the enthusiastic chef has lent her skills to pop up restaurants and established a hotel foodie excursion in Mauritius since her Masterchef days. Permalloo’s imaginative, colourful dishes compliment the multicultural, multilingual island in the Indian Ocean.

“The cuisine is special because it’s probably what you would classify as a traditional fusion," Shelina explains. "In the UK and America, you find East meets West fusion, but in Mauritius we didn’t have anyone on the island 450 years ago so there are no previous influences. Now we have African, Chinese, Indian and French influences which makes it really unique in terms of flavour and variety."

Inspired by the island's culinary resources, Shelina's dishes demonstrate a perchance for seafood, with some recipes demanding ingredients that may be less familiar to the British palette – octopus, for example. But Shelina assures us that the components of these dishes can be sourced locally.  

“Oh, we’ve got seafood in abundance here in the UK, and some of the best lobsters can be found in Scotland.” Another essential ingredient for Shelina's dishes is again unique to Mauritius; its spice. Happily, it turns out it’s the methodology we lack in the UK, rather than the individual components.

“In my book, Sunshine on a Plate, I provide a breakdown of how to make it from scratch, as you can get hold of every single spice in the UK but it’s the way that you combine it that makes it unique to the island. I’ve also given a rough guide for the Mauritian curry powder which for me is the staple curry flavour.”

Fond of cooking with coriander seed, "because I really love the citrusy, rounded flavour, the way it really opens up dishes, complimenting seafood", Shelina insists she’s not a fussy eater. "To be honest, I can pretty much stand anything! Though I’m not into overly sweet food, I’d always choose a savoury dish over a sweet any day."

Having hosted pop up restaurants and devised her own recipes, Shelina appears an authority on what makes a great menu. In her opinion, the key component to any menu is well balanced variety.

"Making sure each dish isn’t samey, a great menu should be rounded, in the sense that the meal should follow through. So having a tropical starter followed by a European main wouldn’t make much sense. Make sure that the theme is consistent."

Shelina's cookbook particularly stands out for its prominence of gluten free and lactose free recipes and alternatives. Evidently welcomed by those resigned to working around their dietary requirements, why was this an important distinction for Shelina to make?

"A couple of years back I had stomach problems and had to go through a process of eliminating dairy and gluten to try and figure them out. I also find that with gluten and dairy free options, the food is lighter, and you can really rely on flavouring rather than cream or butter. I tend not to use dairy much in my dishes. It's nice to make food accessible to everyone, rather than serving something different for the person with intolerances at the table."

Resolute that Masterchef has changed her life for the better, "It was amazing, it definitely feels like a lifetime ago. I’ve not worked in my old job since and am now fulltime in food," Shelina’s bright disposition clearly matches her recipes. And with the Foodies Festival at Clapham Common fast approaching, the chef has been testing new flavour combinations.

"I’ll be hosting the food stage so I’ll be introducing all the different chefs into stage and doing my own demos. The event is just a load of fun, and with a chocolate area, a drinks area, a range of different food and exhibitors it’s a great day out!"

Shelina Permalloo will be at Clapham Common Foodies Festival June 6 - 8th. For more info and tickets, visit Shelina’s cookbook Sunshine on a Plate (Ebury), is available in most bookstores, RRP £20.00

Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Deaf Lifestyle / Food

29th April 2014